Archive for October, 2009

Why Can’t We Be Friends? Barry Jenkin’s Medicine For Melancholy

Wyatt Cenac and Tracy Higgens get friendly, Medicine for Melancholy, Barry Jenkins, 2008

Wyatt Cenac and Tracy Heggens get friendly, Medicine for Melancholy, Barry Jenkins, 2008

I recently caught Barry Jenkin’s debut indie feature, Medicine for Melancholy (2008), and although it’s been a few weeks, this modest little movie has stuck with me. Set in San Francisco, the film begins with a supremely uncomfortable opening sequence as two people wake up together in a bed and a house not their own, although they clearly know each other intimately–at least in the Biblical sense. Apparently the pair had a bit too much to drink at a party the night before and ended up getting busy without first learning each other’s names. They go out to a mostly silent breakfast together and share a taxi to their respective homes, but the female in question is obviously discomfited by their brief encounter and blows off her recent bed partner upon exiting the cab.

This tidy little fifteen minutes sets the tone for the rest of the movie, which is a deft romance that follows a day and a night in the life of these two unlikely partners. They tool around San Francisco, experience some more quality time, and ultimately come to an understanding of each other and their awkward relationship.

medicine sf

Jo & Micah contemplate Afrocentricity, Medicine for Melancholy, Barry Jenkins, 2008

What’s pretty interesting to me  about the film is that Micah and Jo, the unlikely couple, are both African American. The movie presents an outstanding alternative to conventional representations of African American life, with no gangstas, mamas, buppies, or thugs. Interwoven with the film’s romantic escapades are some cogent points about African Americans in San Francisco, where the black population has dwindled steadily since the 1960s “urban renewal” (aka “Negro removal”) decimated the Fillmore. San Francisco’s population now has the lowest percentage of African Americans of any major American city.

Although the film frankly discusses racial identity, racism, interraciality and other hot cultural identity topics, it presents these issues in a breezy, lighthearted frame. Both Wyatt Cenac and Tracy Heggens, who play the two leads, are attractive and winsome actors and Jenkins coaxes engaging, low-key performances out of them. Cenac in particular spouts some pretty flagrant identity-politics dialog while managing to remain charming and appealing.

The film also makes excellent use of its San Francisco locations, shooting mainly at night and avoiding the usual touristy exteriors, and the city sparkles like a jewel in the fog. Although they seem almost too groovy and hip to be true (Micah designs aquariums for a living; Jo is an art rep), it’s fun to see them wander from nightclubs (The KnockOut!) to taco trucks to MOAD to Rainbow Grocery on their fixies, smoking pot and sporting Timbuktu bike messenger bags. It seemed very fitting to be watching the film at Craig Baldwin’s Other Cinema, which is housed at Artists Television Access, the longstanding gallery and screening venue in the heart of boholandia in the Mission District. I half-expected Micah and Jo to show up on their bikes and hang out smoking hand-rolled cigarettes with the rest of the audience after the show.

Although some of the plot points are a glossed over or outlandish (why is Jo so quick to step out on her absent boyfriend?) the movie as a whole fulfills its modest expectations. Jenkins stated in the Q&A that, after suffering a failed romance, he wanted to capture the sense of being lonely, African American and male in San Francisco, and the film succeeds in doing so.

The film manages to look at some tough issues of race and culture without becoming didactic, dull, or overwrought. In that way it’s similar to another low-budget indie African American debut film, one that was released more than twenty years before Medicine For Melancholy. Like Spike Lee’s first feature, She’s Gotta Have It, this film uses the romantic lives of its quirky black characters to take on much bigger and broader concerns. Though not quite as brilliant and exhilarating as Spike’s freshman joint, Jenkins’ film does what it sets out to do in an energetic, refreshing way. Here’s hoping Jenkins can maintain his light touch in his future endeavors.

Interraciality, Tall Enough poster, Barry Jenkins, 2009

Interraciality, Tall Enough poster, Barry Jenkins, 2009

NOTE: At the same Other Cinema program, Jenkins also screened several of his other projects, including Tall Enough, an intriguing short financed by Bloomingdale’s department store (!) in New York City. The movie looked at an interracial romance between an African American female and an Asian American male. The part where the Chinese American guy speaks in Mandarin to his sleeping lover tilts toward yellow fever, and the film’s title is a little strange (what exactly is tall enough, anyways? are you saying Asian men are, y’know, short somewhere?), but the portrayal is a step towards eradicating Asian male emasculation in media. It’s nice to see an Asian American man as an romantic figure and an object of desire, especially when that idiotic dickwad media ho Jon Gosselin is threatening to set back Asian American male representation 100 years.

For an good discussion by Prometheus Brown, go here.

Medicine For Melancholy is now available on DVD from

October 22, 2009 at 5:46 am 4 comments

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